Monday, June 22, 2009

Jay Porter Had a Plan to Stick It to the Man (Or Something Like That)

Will a novel—that is, a work of fiction (which if we remember correctly means “made up”)—have any impact on the still-nascent Houston mayoral race? Probably not, but it’s nonetheless interesting, even intriguing, that Attica Locke, the daughter of mayoral candidate Gene Locke, has a new novel out that’s getting prime critical notice just as the heretofore nearly invisible mayoral campaign is becoming more visible. Even more intriguing is the plain fact that the protagonist of Attica Locke’s Houston-set book, a lawyer named Jay Porter, appears to be closely modeled on her real-life father, the mayoral candidate, right down to his “student-radical” past.

Her book, Black Water Rising, got the kind of boost that most first-time authors might consider sacrificing a limb for when it was accorded a mostly favorable review by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin at the top of the newspaper’s Monday Arts section. Maslin called the book “atmospheric [and] richly convoluted” and invoked Scott Turow, Dennis Lehane and one of America’s best working novelists, George Pelecanos, in praising facets of Locke’s plotting and characterization.

Attica Locke—she was named, Maslin reports, after the site of the 1971 New York state prison uprising­—is a graduate of Hastings H.S. and Northwestern University and a disillusioned aspiring screenwriter, according to this Houston Chronicle profile from last week, wherein she emphatically disclaimed the notion that Jay Porter is her dad, or vice-versa:
“I have to be clear that Jay is not really my dad. At all,” Locke says. “Some of the circumstances of the character’s life line up with my father’s in the sense that my dad was also a political activist at the University of Houston at that time period. He did go on to become a criminal defense attorney. He was on trial, not for trying to kill somebody, but for inciting a riot.
Whatever the case, the daughter’s book can’t help but be fodder for local parlor-game amusement. It’s set in 1981—the year, coincidently, that we arrived in Houston*, along with half of the rest of North America—and the mayor is a white woman named Cynthia Maddox, an “old flame” of Jay Porter’s and onetime “outspoken member of Students for a Democratic Society, a white girl drawn to black radicals ‘as sure as if the Temptations had come to town.’ ” (Real-life reality check: Houston’s first and only female mayor, Kathy Whitmire, did not assume office until 1982, and Whitmire was no radical revolutionary, even in her youth, but rather a moderate, working-class North Houston-to-the-Heights Democrat [there used to be a whole lot more of ’em than just Gene Green]. As for the rest of it, including the Temptations part, well, we’d rather not think too much about it. ) According to Maslin, Locke also includes “arresting visual filed trips (to places like the huge country-and-western club Gilley’s … )" and other apparent deep-Houston touches.

We’ll refrain from any sweeping judgment, not having read Locke’s book, but we do detect traces of a clichéd mind at work in the plot turnings, if Maslin’s summary of the book is correct:
Where will the strike [by dockworkers at the port] lead this story? It will lead to “Chinatown”-style conspiratorial rumblings, with oil supplanting water as the natural resource worth killing for.
Forget it, Jake: It's just the Big Bad Oil Business, always messing up people’s lives and minds. (Real-life reality check: Without oil [and the Ship Channel and attendant petrochemical facilities], this place would be Shreveport [maybe], a festering, sweltering dump of no import, not a moving-and-grooving multicultural polyglot world-class metropolis, the one where insider-lawyer Jay Porter … ’scuse me, Gene Locke … has a good shot at being elected mayor.)

*At the time the local constabulary's reputation for railroading and whipping up on blacks and longhairs was so fearsome that upon arrival in our Chevy Biscayne we made a solemn vow to our self that we would do everything possible to avoid arrest and/or overly long contact with the police, a vow that, amazingly, we've been able to keep, lo these many years.


Robert Boyd said...

Really you should read the book before you make comment. There is much to criticize in this novel, especially the oil company's nefarious plot (which involves an ignorance on Locke's part of oil economics, oil geology, and oil history). But whatever similarities Jay Porter and Gene Locke have, the Porter character is extremely unlikely to ever become mayor. Porter is a down-on-his-luck lawyer taking bottom-of-the-barrel personal injury cases (and personally, I think down-on-their-luck characters make good protagonists in thrillers). The only way he is an "insider" in the novel is that he knows the mayor--but they pretty much hate each other. (You are right to say that the Maddox character doesn't resemble Whitmire in the least, but that's why they call it fiction.)

I thought it was a pretty good read, but the oil company villainy just didn't make sense. There are ways you could position an oil company as the villain of a crime novel that would be plausible. A good crime writer can take any kind of "white collar" malfeasance (fraud, corruption, extortion, whatever), add a little sex and murder to it, and make it work. It's what crime writers do. Unfortunately, Locke didn't come up with a criminal conspiracy that I could believe in the end.

But as a writer, I thought she wasn't bad. Porter was a good character. If she can create better researched and more plausible crimes, she could have her own little franchise here.

Slampo said...

Mr. Boyd: Thanks, and I agree with everything you say, including the part that I shouldn't comment until I've read the book ... but, hey, we're blogurbatin' here, and I wasn't being critical of the book at all, just suggesting the "oil company conspiracy" twist or whatever it is sounds juvenile and kind of cliched. And it sounds like you should write that crime novel you speak of ...

Robert Boyd said...

I've considered it! I like thrillers that take the history of a place and use it as a framework for a thriller. Like James Elroy's L.A. Quartet. And Houston has had, in its history, plenty of unsolved crimes, cover-ups, outrages, and all-around shenanigans to fill any number of thrillers with a slightly fictional dressing.

That's why I had high hope for Black Water Rising--which it partially met but failed in a specific way (which I don't want to say how because it would spoil the novel).